Should Barra join CEOs quitting Trump panels?


One side effect of Ford Motor Co.’s decision to replace CEO Mark Fields in May is that it got the automaker out of President Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council without having to take any sort of a political stand.
General Motors is not as fortunate. Its CEO, Mary Barra, isn’t anywhere close to getting fired.
Barra sits on another Trump advisory panel — one focused on economic policy. She originally described the position as a way to have “a seat at an important table” as the Trump administration dealt with issues such as tax reform and job growth.
Instead, as Trump seemingly stumbles from one crisis to another, GM, along with the other corporations that thought they could benefit from regular interaction with the president, finds itself mired in a major public relations dilemma.
Does Barra stay on the panel and allow GM to continue being linked to a president who’s extremely unpopular and, most recently, under fire for his reluctance to condemn Nazism?
Or does she quit and potentially alienate Trump’s supporters in pickup-loving red states — not to mention the risk that Trump himself would publicly lambaste GM, as he did Monday when the CEO of drugmaker Merck resigned from the manufacturing council?
Despite the unconventional and bizarre nature of Trump’s campaign, those are surely not the questions GM anticipated pondering when Barra agreed to the advisory role.
Merck’s CEO, Ken Frazier, one of three executives to abandon the council Monday, said he felt the need to “take a stand against intolerance and extremism” after Trump had failed to condemn white nationalists for inciting a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, Va. Two others, Kevin Plank of Under Armour and Brian Krzanich of Intel, were less critical of Trump in announcing they, too, would step down. Plank said only that the company wanted to be involved in “innovation and sports, not politics.”
Frazier’s decision to quit garnered a swift response from Trump, who tweeted about Merck needing to reduce its “ripoff drug prices” and stop moving jobs out of the U.S.
Conspicuously silent
Barra undoubtedly doesn’t want to give Trump a reason to put GM in a similar spotlight. GM is expanding operations in Mexico — a topic that Trump frequently blasted Ford about during his campaign — and has cut more than 5,000 jobs in the U.S. this year because of slowing sales. GM also was conspicuously silent after Trump’s Muslim travel ban, even though Ford was brave enough to express its opposition.
“How can so many other American business leaders and senior executives remain quiet about the president’s reaction?” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in The New York Times​ on Tuesday. “Where is the moral courage to stand up?”
GM officials declined to discuss Barra’s status on the panels in the wake of Monday’s resignations. The last time GM commented about the matter was more than two months ago, when it reiterated Barra’s reasons for joining the panel in the first place.
With every day that goes by, Barra’s continued membership on the panel looks less like a non-decision and more like a tacit endorsement of Trump’s actions and comments.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk quit two presidential advisory councils in June in protest of Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Now, the increasing outflow of CEOs from the panels in the wake of the Charlottesville violence could provide Barra the cover she needs to follow suit without as much fear of any blowback.
She could do it without making the sort of bold, public rebuke of Trump that Merck’s CEO did, and her leaving would be a footnote at this point, rather than a major story on its own. She could — and should — simply say it’s a distraction that GM doesn’t need while focusing on the challenges of its own business.
What’s the risk?
Besides, it’s become clear in the past seven months that Trump is not exactly the type of president who listens to anyone’s advice, making the value of a seat at his “important table” marginal at best, if not entirely inconsequential.
GM would obviously prefer not to wade into discussions about politics and racism, but the company put itself in this position when Barra overlooked the many incendiary comments Trump had made prior to taking office and agreed to sit on the panel anyway.
Stepping down would definitely be a risky move, but one that a growing number of her counterparts at other big companies have become willing to take.
Continued inaction, meanwhile, makes a statement as well.
Trump was excoriated, even by many prominent Republicans, for blaming Charlottesville on “many sides” and trying to remain vague.
It’s time for Barra and GM to pick a side.
Or maybe they already have.
Fuente: Automotive News